MORRIS – About eight years ago, Phil Hendricks noticed his monkey, Gilligan, riding on the back of his dog, George, and he envisioned the world’s first monkey jockey.
Several weeks of training later, the Banana Derby was born, and for the last seven years, Hendricks’ dog-racing monkeys have performed at fairs and festivals across the country.
“It combines two of man’s favorite animals – the monkey and the dog,” Hendricks said.
Grundy County fairgoers can watch the Banana Derby themselves for free at various times throughout the rest of the week.
Wednesday marked the opening of the derby, which drew a large crowd.
The race began with an announcement from Hendricks, who introduced each of his three monkey jockeys – Bobo, Burt and Gilligan. The crowd was encouraged to cheer and clap loudly for their favorite jockey as the monkeys rode dogs around the track.
At one point, Hendricks pulled volunteer cheerleaders from the crowd who were given costumes and allowed to stand inside the racetrack.
After the race, kids and families can have their picture taken with Gilligan, the star of the show and the Banana Derby’s “Chief Executive Monkey,” according to Hendricks.
The racing dogs were rescued and trained by Hendricks, including Sasha, who was rescued from Grundy County Animal Control several years ago, Hendricks said.
All three of the performing monkeys have been with Hendricks from the beginning. Gilligan, who is 28 years old, performed in other one-man shows with Hendricks before becoming a monkey jockey.
Nevertheless, training the animals to become Banana Derby riders was difficult.
“It took quite a long time,” he said. “The dogs were easier than the monkeys.”